Thursday, May 16, 1996

'The House in the Heart' by Elizabeth Coxhead

Memories of the past are cherished by all of us. For some of us it is scenes of childhood with nostalgic remembrances of people and places which pleasure our thoughts as we recall our past. For those fortunate enough to have happy memories of the past, the endless memory bank ensures a ceaseless flow of enrichment which over time however often misshapes and distorts the past.

There is always undoubtedly a little exaggeration and always a little self-deception which unconsciously acts on the mind to trim the edges of memory. Some memories are discarded and in their place there can develop others which are perhaps more acceptable to us even if they are not true or accurate. It was my reading of Elizabeth Coxhead's book "The House in the Heart" published in 1959 which triggered these thoughts. Coxhead, who is perhaps better known as the writer of a biography of Lady Gregory and a book on Irish Rebel women had a link with Athy of the past. Her grandfather was James Moses Kelly, a baker from Athy who married Margaret Duncan, daughter of Alexander Duncan of Tonlegee House. Elizabeth Coxhead, born in 1909 died 70 years later. In her novel "The House in the Heart", she incorporated details and data of her own family's visits to Athy and Tonlegee House but cloaked the people and places with fictitious names.

The Duncans are identified as Robertsons and Tonlegee House is Mount Anne located just outside the market town of Kilrannon. Visualise if you will the journey of the English visitors who on arrival at the local railway station were met by an "elegant brown trap to drive the grown ups", a farm cart for the luggage and a wagonette for the children. Together they "made their triumphal progress down the High Street, past the Square with its pink and dove coloured houses, across the Bridge and beneath the little Norman Keep that guarded it."

Athy is readily identifiable from that description. What Elizabeth Coxhead did not know was that Athy's main street was called High Street long before it was ever renamed after the Duke of Leinster. Later "the Mount Anne Woods loomed up" before the convoy turned in through the drive gates "and there it sat in its lap of beeches, the big white house, square and unpretentious."

Further on as the tale of the Robertsons unfolded we are given further clues as to the identity of the town at the centre of Elizabeth Coxhead's novel. She wrote "the rest of them walked sedately the mile into Kilrannon and filled the front pew in the neat little Wesleyan Methodist Church that Douglas Robertson's munificence had built. A tablet on the wall commemorated his virtues".

Alexander Duncan of Tonlegee House, grandfather of Elizabeth Coxhead was responsible for the building of the Methodist Church in Woodstock Street. He had purchased the site, presented it to the Methodist Community and led the way in financing the Church building which was dedicated on the 12th of June 1874. His generosity is commemorated on a tablet in the Church and indeed his wife, who in the novel was alive but bedridden, was similarly commemorated after her death.

Another clue as to the identification of Mount Anne as Tonlegee House was a reference to the Lodge Keeper's House where the main drive emerged. This being further beyond Kilrannon than the back drive it was never used. "The long suffering Honour" lived in that tiny white pavilion built in the style of the main house which Coxhead described as having "no plumbing of any kind" despite the elegance of "the Victorian - Classic formulae".

"The second Tuesday of the month was the pig market, Kilrannon being the principal centre of trade in this animal" wrote Coxhead who recounted that "for many years now a respected adjunct of the market had been the Roberstons Breakfast Stall". Continuing she claimed that "the benighted place was quite without the teashops and cafes of its English counterparts, it lacked even a decent hotel. In the old days, farmers who had driven ten or twenty miles with their squealing cartloads found nowhere to breakfast except in drinking dens and most of them would be fuddled before midday and a prey to the rapacity of the Dublin bacon buyers."

The Robertsons daughters had consequently set up a breakfast stall where a very strong sweet tea, pies, sausage rolls and sandwich bread was sold. This stall was always set up in the south-east corner of the Square "under the statue of the 16th Duke", a right not disputed "even by the old clothes woman with her brazen racy patter who was the next most important attraction, and who queened it beside the Fountain in the south-west." The proceeds of the stall went "not to Wesleyan funds - that would have antagonised the Catholic element - but to the local interdenominational Hospital."

It is wonderful to read descriptions of Athy over 80 years ago even if some of the details puzzles rather than illuminates. Where for instance was the statue of the 16th Duke? A figment of the writer's imagination or perhaps an illustration of the fragility of youthful memory. Memories are a source of pleasure and happiness and Elizabeth Coxhead's book of childhood memories of Athy and the Duncans of Tonlegee House evoke a nostalgic response prompting a desire for others to put their memories of times past in print.

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